Where the <b>Road Ends</b>

Where the Road Ends

For adventure riders in the know, the mere mention of the Darien Gap can make the heart race: It’s a storied no-man’s land that sits between two continents, brimming with dangers, both nature-made and human.
12-18-2018
Adventure

Article

Wayne Mitchell
#REVITRIDER

Born and raised in Alaska, Wayne grew up in the professional hunting guide business. In 1994 he, enlisted in the U.S. Army in the 207th Infantry Group Long Range Surveillance detachment as an airborne infantryman and senior scout. After commissioning as an engineer officer in 2000, Wayne went on to serve as a U.S. Army adviser and trainer in Mongolia and Taiwan. Wayne currently works as a park ranger for the Department of Interior.

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Wayne Mitchell

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VENTURING OFF THE MAPTHE DARIEN GAP

In 2017, a team of U.S. military veterans set out to ride motorcycles from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America, crossing the infamous Darien Gap in the process. Here’s the full story, narrated by Team Leader, Wayne Mitchell.

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"THAT PLACE AT THE EDGE OF THE MAP"

The Darien Gap is a 100-mile stretch of untamed jungle that separates Panama from Colombia. It is the only break in the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Argentina. There are no roads or bridges, only a muddy foot path winding through dense jungle of vines, spiders, snakes and all manner of human dangers framed against the backdrop of jagged, densely covered mountain peaks. By most standards, it’s impassable by motorcycles or cars.

The Darien is one of those places at the edge of the map. If you look at a map of Colombia, it’s in the northwest corner with little detail; it trails off with only a faint reference to the Atrato Swamp, and Panama beyond. If you are looking at a map of Panama, you may only see a large section marked “Darien National Park.” It’s home to the indigenous Kuna Indians, and few others need travel there.

It was that place at the edge of the map with so few details that occupied my thoughts for nearly 20 years.

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A RECORD FOR THE TAKING

In 2005, while deployed to Iraq in the US Army, I found myself telling fellow soldiers about the Darien Gap. After some research, I learned that no one had yet built a road through it. For the next ten years, I continued in my fascination with the Darien, and with the fact that although there had been a few crossings of the gap by Jeep, Land Rover and motorcycle, most expeditions by motorcycle had allowed several years to complete the trek from Alaska to Argentina.

As several of my military friends and I all approached retirement, our planning and research on the Darien intensified. But the Darien remained a dark place at the edge of the map. Called the “Stopper” in Spanish, and with articles written about it being the “most dangerous jungle in the world,” it remained a mystery mostly propagated by locals, drug smugglers and human traffickers who frequently used the Darien as a passageway from South to Central America.

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The Men

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We set ourselves to the task of being the first motorcycle riders to travel from Deadhorse, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina by land through the Darien Gap in one continuous expedition. In reality, we would realize that that claim, that title, would be pointless. Merely surviving the Darien Gap would be our true accomplishment.

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THEFROZEN ROAD

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By mid 2016, we had the team together. Despite all of us being retired army veterans, we had some time constraints. We could only take five months away from our wives, families and second jobs to complete the trip from Alaska to Argentina; allowing for 30 days to cross the Darien Gap. The jungles of Panama and Colombia are miserable year round, but in the rainy season, they are nearly impassable. Our backward planning from the start of the dry season meant that we would have to depart Deadhorse, Alaska in November in order to reach Panama by January, when the rains would subside and the mud would dry.

We turned to the Edwards brothers to help us solve the first challenge. How to ride a motorcycle on frozen roads through Alaska and Canada? Simon Edwards, a former Special Forces Medic turned land speed racer, was already on board as our team medic. He and his brother, Dave, a master fabricator, built four custom cargo sidecars to give the bikes stability on the ice, as well as extra carry capacity for arctic sleeping bags, fuel and gear.

We chose to depart Deadhorse, Alaska, the northernmost road in the US, on Veteran’s Day, November 11th. For us, the departure was symbolic and practical. The “Haul Road” from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks was mostly empty on the holiday, and the weather was calling for cold but clear.

With a pace car in the lead, and a trail vehicle with radio communication with the truckers, we set out in the early morning darkness. A few truckers and North Slope employees came out to send us off, many noting that they had never seen motorcycles on the Dalton Highway in winter.

Our first major obstacle was Atigun Pass. Just shy of 4,700 feet, Atigun Pass is not particularly high, but its location in the Brooks Range - 135 miles north of the Arctic Circle - and our crossing it at night put our team through the wringer. In the darkness, we lost many of the metal studs we had put in our tires, and one of the bikes’ lighting failed. With visibility and the wind getting worse, we hastily re-studded the tires and took off into the night.

An hour after we made it over Atigun, the weather cleared. The moon came out and the temperature dropped to 12 below zero. Fahrenheit. Our one rider still had no headlights and had to ride in the shadow of another rider’s light as we spent a long, grueling night barreling down the dark and frozen road toward Coldfoot Camp.

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IDIOTS AND FOOLS

“Only an idiot or a fool would ride a motorcycle up here,” the voice over the radio said clearly, along with some other less-than-flattering comments. The day before, word had gotten out that a group of veterans were riding motorcycles from Alaska to Argentina on the Dalton Highway.

The few truckers we had passed were fairly positive to indifferent. Now, as we departed the warmth of Coldfoot Camp and pushed our way down a recently snow covered road toward the Yukon River, the greetings we received were far from encouraging.

“What kind of a**hole rides a motorcycle in winter up here?” one trucker asked, to which our only reply could be name, rank and serial number. That pattern continued on for the next two days as we inched our way further south toward Fairbanks.

Despite our heading in the right direction, the weather got worse, and by the time we reached the relative civilization of Fairbanks, we found ourselves in a full-blown snowstorm that lasted two days. We took the time to rest up and work on electrical issues while the town dug itself out.

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Beautiful mountains of Colombia

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SMOOTH SAILING, EH?

Along icy roads that, at one point caused a passenger car to spin out of control and hit one of our riders, we crossed Northern Canada with relative ease. The cold made for long days. We innovated by cutting up sleeping pads to stuff inside our jackets and pants. We tied ropes to the backs of our sidecars as ready-to-grab tow ropes if someone got stuck. We pitched our tents in the Walmart parking lot in Whitehorse when we could not find any campgrounds open in the winter season.

By the time we reached the border to Washington state, it was Thanksgiving Day. The rain was pouring down, and we had family waiting for us in Portland, Oregon.

In a marathon day we covered 475 miles in just over 11 hours; pulling into Portland soaking wet and with a newfound hatred for sidecars and riding in the dark and rain.

After a few days rest, and in the hope that we’d seen the last of snow, we dropped the sidecars in Oregon and continued on two wheels into California. The US fell behind us and we entered Mexico on December 5th, on schedule. We had 12 more international border crossings to make; San Diego into Mexico would prove to be the easiest and shortest of all of them, lasting only 7 hours.

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SOUTH OF THE BORDER

In Mexico, we crossed the Baja Peninsula, making our way south. Heavy Santa Ana winds slowed us down, and we found ourselves buying local fuel from rusty fuel cans out the back of someone’s pickup truck, and camping at night on the beach or behind abandoned buildings.

The next day we caught the ferry to mainland Mexico and headed further south along the coast. Our ultimate goal in Mexico was a small town outside Zihuatenejo called Troncones. A friend of a friend had a small villa on the beach there, and had offered to let us stay. When we finally arrived at that beach, it turned out to be better than we expected.

We spent three nights near the ocean resting, swimming and trying to learn to surf. Despite the comfort of the beach, we felt called to push on. As our team medic put it, “The Darien is always this monster looming on the horizon.”

On January 7th, four days behind schedule, we pulled into Panama City. Upon arrival, we were told the Director of Senafront, Panama’s border patrol rangers, had requested to meet with us. They were still unsure if they would allow us to enter the Darien or if they would let us traverse the dense jungle into Colombia.

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FACING THE MONSTER

The road from Panama City to Yaviza was recently paved and sealed. It smelled like fresh asphalt, and the smell was further intensified by the 100-plus degree heat and direct sun. The miles melted quickly, and we found ourselves in the small riverside town.

The road abruptly ends at a narrow foot bridge that crosses the river. On the far side, a dirt path disappears into the vast green jungle that continues uninterrupted for 100 miles to the South.


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After the initial confusion of our arrival, we were escorted into a heavily fortified jungle compound. We were made to park our bikes and were not allowed to film or take photos. We were seated outside in the sun and told to wait for the battalion commander. After what seemed like an hour, his assistant came out to tell us we could not go into the jungle. Our French interpreter, Michel, insisted that this was just a tactic to see how committed we were. After another 30 minutes, the commander emerged from the only air-conditioned room in the place, shook our hands and wanted photos. He informed us that we could go, and that he would send an armed platoon of rangers with us, but only to the border. “Into Colombia,” he warned, “you go alone. You are on your own.”

The commander’s warning left us with little to be joyous about. We had crossed Alaska and Canada in the dead of winter just to reach this point, at this time. We had our official permission. Now, we were being allowed to face the monster, head on.

By moonlight, we loaded gear and bikes into recently emptied banana boats. It was plantain season and we were lucky to be able to hire three large boats; one large enough to haul all four bikes in one trip up river to the village of Paya, the last sign of civilization before the overland journey into Colombia. We planned to take two days by boat, the task made easier by the constant and unseasonable rain. Every day it had rained steady and hard for over an hour, and although it made water travel easier, our concern turned to the path through the jungle.

Within the first mile, it became obvious that the Darien Gap could not be “ridden” in the traditional sense. Knee-deep mud, combined with tree roots, vines and the intense heat and humidity, sapped our energy. With every few feet of riding we would hit an obstacle, bury the front end in mud, get the handlebars snagged by a vine, or hit a root and fall over, each time having to pick the bikes up and try to find a flat spot to rest. Disaster struck the last bike in our group around the one-mile mark, a burned out clutch not even three hours into the first day.

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The hard push taking its toll

Three bikes made it another mile that first day. A full 12 hours of effort to get less than two miles, with one bike disabled. That night we set up our hammocks on the hilltop while local villagers and their children cooked large pots of rice and sardines. Closed in our hammocks, eating to avoid the swarm of mosquitoes and biting ants, we discussed our options.

After some sleep and with clearer heads in the morning, we reached a decision. Rich, the rider whose bike had lost the clutch and who had the least amount of off-road riding experience, opted to abandon his bike and return to Panama City. It was a somber moment for the team, and the first time we realized that we all might face the same fate. It had never occurred to us that we might fail. We had considered that outside forces might prevent us from succeeding, but not that we might fail of our own decisions.

The second day was far more brutal than the first. With the help of locals we moved the bikes another two miles in what would become a regular routine. Someone would ride as far as they could before crashing and falling over.

Then the group would hoist the bikes over whatever obstacle lay in the path. We would cut sticks and use them to clean the mud from the rear wheels, sometimes using our hands to get all the way up into the fender wells, sometimes needing a knife to cut away branches and vines that wrapped the axles and sprockets. After drinking water and catching our breath, we would repeat the cycle.

By the end of Day Two, we had reached within a mile of the Colombian border. The hard push had taken its toll. Two more bikes had blown clutches, leaving only one bike in running condition. We had another conference that night over black beans, rice and Spam. By morning we had reached the unanimous decision to continue forward by any means. We fixed ropes to the bikes and pulled them like dogs pulling a sled.

Now, completely reliant on our local Kuna guides, we moved forward at a steady pace reaching the border by midday. Our armed escort was waiting in a small jungle clearing near a cement pillar marking the border. Colombia on one side, Panama on the other. We pulled the bikes in close and got photos with the entire crew. Senafront wished us luck and shook our hands, then disappeared in the jungle.

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Welcome to Colombia

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WELCOME TO COLOMBIA, IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE

The words of our local Kuna guide, though comforting at the time, were not quite accurate. One river zigzagged back and forth toward the south, cutting deep, steep, muddy hills through the dark brown earth. Here, the trail was nonexistent. We hired a local with a chainsaw to clear the path of fallen trees in front of us, while we used machetes to clear enough of the trail for the handlebars to pass through.

After two days, we realized that rather than going over each hill, we could simply stay in the river, dragging the bikes through waist-deep water and save ourselves time.

Within no time, we had cut two days’ worth of work off, and found ourselves in ever deeper water. We sent word forward to the nearest village in Colombia, a small hamlet called Cristales, for boats. Rounding a bend late in the evening, our spirits were lifted to see several small dugouts pulled up on the bank of the river, the first sign of civilization we had seen since leaving Paya.

We were too tired to really celebrate when we finally reached Cristales. The locals were far less eager to see us than we had expected. We were shuffled off to a community building up on stilts, our bikes secured on the river bank and we were told to wait. Soon we would find out the reason for the cool reception. A local militia group was nearby with 70 armed men. We were told we would have to wait for permission to stay.

As darkness surrounded the village, the elders showed up with good news that we could stay the night but had to leave early in the morning and could not fly our drone. We accepted the offer, slept and before first light were packed, and ready to leave, having hired boats to take us down river.

We crossed the Atrato Swamp in a day, at times having to unload the bikes and drag them down river as the water level dropped to less than 4 inches deep, with the headwaters of the Atrato River fanning out into the swamp basin. By evening, the channel had widened enough to reload the boats, and by dusk we reached the stilt town of Punta Americas, clinging to the side of the river like a pirate town right out of a Disney movie.

We wasted no time crossing the river and checking in at the nearest Colombian military checkpoint, only to be met with doubt and questions about our route into Colombia.

After being released from the military checkpoint, we hired another boat to take us down river to the town of Turbo. After yet another military checkpoint - and many hours lost - we found ourselves in the open ocean, crossing from Bocas del Atrato to the town of Turbo in pitch black, in a small fiberglass boat with no lights or navigation equipment. Too tired to argue, we sat low in our seats to avoid the ocean spray, hunkering down and waiting for the inevitable flipping of the boat and our death by drowning.

We did not drown that night. Instead, we reached the town of Turbo safely around midnight, pulled the bikes into a local garage, and headed into town, drunk from exhaustion, to the nearest hotel that would take us.

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SAVIOR, SAINTS AND SPARE PARTS

Able to reach Rich on the phone before he left Panama, he was able to meet us in Cartagena with spare parts, and within a week, we were back on the road.

From Cartagena we headed south through the mountains of Armenia and Colombia’s coffee region, where we stayed at Iron Horse Filandia, a converted farm turned into a hostel for overlanders and riders. We reached the border in a couple days, stopping for a rest at the Santuario Las Lajas Catholic Church carved out of the mountains near Ipiales.

Reaching the border to Ecuador at midday, we encountered massive lines of Venezuelan refugees trying to cross the borders heading further south. Most of them were seeking better jobs in Argentina or Chile.

The border crossing took long into the night, refugee families camped out among their possessions, but we were able to get through before closing and find a place to camp for the night just over the border.

We did not spend much time in Ecuador or Northern Peru, as we had plans to spend a few days hiking into Machu Picchu and meeting up with a fellow Alaskan in Cusco. The mountains of Peru offered some relief from the heat. It was later in the season, and we knew that winter would be coming soon to South America. Repair work from the Darien crossing had put us behind schedule. Still, we made the time to follow mountain roads deep into the Peruvian Andes to a spot called Hidroelectrica, a small outpost recommended to us by our hosts at Iron Horse Filandia. Locking our gear up and paying a local to watch our bikes, we hiked the railroad tracks into Agua Calientes, the tourist town that serves as gateway to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

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Peru

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Setting up Camp

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the cheaper route

Two days of hiking in and around the Incan Ruins of the Andes made us realize that four months on a motorcycle had done nothing for our cardiovascular fitness. It was a welcome relief to return to our bikes and get back in the saddle heading south.

Crossing into northern Chile was by far the easiest, taking less than an hour for all four riders to get paperwork in order. We were back on the road and eager to make our next destination, to ride across the Atacama Desert, as so many adventure riders had done before. We would cross the desert and follow the coast of Chile to Santiago. In Santiago, we borrowed a garage from local Dunlop dealer and we did our last tire change of the trip, putting on a fresh set of D606s we hoped would last all the way to Ushuaia.

The roads from Santiago to Puerto Montt were fantastic and we chewed up 500 miles in a day of easy travel. But reaching the northernmost city in the Carretera, Austral, we had a wake-up call. Winter was fast approaching, and the freezing rain hit us hard.

That first night we spent huddled over maps with our gear drying out around a fireplace, trying to decide a route weighed against a motorcycle rider’s three biggest factors: money, time and weather.

Ultimately deciding to take the cheaper route of riding and taking short ferry crossings, we went to bed early. With an extra day to wait out the ferry schedule, we spent the time to replacing a bike battery and buying better maps.

The coastal dirt roads we followed, paved in only small spots, were broken up by ferry rides and stops in towns for coffee and to warm up. The rains continued to visit us, usually in the afternoons, giving us a good soak before nightfall when the temperatures would drop and we would have to make camp.

On March 24th, we spent the night at the side of a lake, and in the morning, when we pulled up camp, the tents were covered in frost. We rode 20 miles of soft dirt road before we reached a newly paved highway. The legendary winds of Patagonia blasted us all morning. By evening, the winds died down and Mt. Fitzroy came into view. We stopped for a while to have a roadside snack and to get some photos of the bikes with the breathtaking snow-capped landscape as a backdrop.

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Traveling motorcycles through the high Andes

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THEFINAL PUSH

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After a few days hiking around El Chaitén, we loaded up the bikes and made the final push towards Ushuaia. The winds were strong as we crossed the open grasslands of southern Argentina. We caught the last ferry of the evening and made a quick border crossing into Tierra Del Fuego.

We got a strong sense of how much the seasons were changing as we snaked through the mountains of southern Argentina. The leaves, already turning amber and falling from the trees, blanketed the roadway. We followed the shores of Lago Fagnano, before turning south through the final mountain pass leading into Ushuaia.

At 2pm on March 27th, after five months and 19,500 miles, one hundred of which were through the center of the Darien Jungle, we reached our final destination.

For the team, there was a tremendous sense of relief that we had accomplished a goal nearly three years in the making. We reached our goal and succeeded in something we had dreamed about for years.

For a motorcycle rider, the trip from Alaska to Argentina can be the trip of a lifetime. For the adventurer, the Darien Gap can be a challenge that calls to you relentlessly. It was, for the four of us, five months on the road spent filling in the edges of the map.

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For the team, there was a tremendous sense of relief that we had accomplished a goal nearly three years in the making. We reached our goal and succeeded in something we had dreamed about for years.

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